Is it safe yet?
Ligtas na ba?” was the way a fellow faculty member put it. “Is it safe yet?”
I could tell from her tone that the question was being asked partly tongue-in-cheek, but with a hint of anxiety that became clear as she added: “Are the ghosts gone yet?”
I’ve written about how this Chinese obsessive fear of hungry ghosts during the seventh lunar month seems to have picked up believers among Filipinos, whether of Chinese ethnicity or not. For those of you still unaware of this “ghost month” phobia, here’s a brief summary: During this seventh lunar month (which runs, this year, from Aug. 22 to Sept. 19), hungry ghosts that are normally kept in an underworld are let loose to roam the earth. They can be placated with offerings of food and other “bribes” including liquor and cigarettes; the dead, I guess, won’t get liver disease or lung cancer. Even then, they are hard to please and will continue to wreak havoc, causing accidents and catastrophes that allow them to harvest new crops of hungry ghosts.
The result is that the entire month is deemed inauspicious—malas in Filipino—for any new venture that involves risks. That means no long-distance travel, no inaugurations of new businesses, no new major investments including the stock market. Even surgeries are postponed whenever possible. Oh, and you’ll find a dip in the number of weddings as well, which tells us how marriage is viewed by many people.
The fear of the seventh lunar month will probably be reinforced with the perceptions of what have happened this year, what with the headlines and breaking news on the gruesome killings of Kian Loyd delos Santos and Carl Angelo Arnaiz. Just yesterday, the attention shifted to Reynaldo de Guzman, a 14-year-old, who had disappeared together with Carl Arnaiz. Reynaldo’s corpse was found floating in a creek in Gapan, Nueva Ecija, the head taped and the body with more than 30 stab wounds.
Not in the headlines but very much on the minds of people in Mindanao, and the national minorities camped out in UP Diliman, was Obillo Bay-ao, a lumad (indigenous person from Mindanao). Obillo, of Talaingod, Davao del Norte, died early
this week, a day after being shot by a member of the local Cafgu (Citizen Armed Force Geographic Unit).
Most dangerous day
I have to put on my scientist’s hat now and remind people that we pick out “facts” that suit what we want to believe. Kian and Carl were killed before the “ghost month” began, but the media frenzy has dragged through this terrible month, and I’m using “terrible” in the sense of the killings, not of ghosts. In a major escalation of the war on drugs, police boasted of killing 80 people from Aug. 16 to 18 alone.
Yes, the ghost month has resulted in more deaths, including the gruesome ones involving Reynaldo, whose state of decomposition suggests he was killed only a few days ago. Obillo died on Sept. 5; the fanatical believers in the ghost month point out that it is the 15th day of the ghost month, which is said to be the most dangerous day of the year.
Now that the 15th day has passed, will it mean the situation should calm down?
Let’s put away this ghost thing first by way of looking at the origins of the stories. The folk beliefs around hungry ghosts come to us through Buddhism, probably borrowed from Hinduism, and revolve around karma. People who live out their greed turn into ghosts with insatiable hunger. These ghosts lusted not just for food and drink but for things material, and for power, all of which they cannot get after their death. They are given distorted bodies with large empty bellies and tiny mouths and throats that limit what they can take. If they are able to find some food—which includes corpses—it quickly turns into vapor, while water and beverages turn to fire.
Ghosts are not really about the dead. They are our creations, our materialization of our lives’ eternal questions: Why are we here on earth? Why is life so hard? Why do good people die young while evil men and women go unpunished?
The stories around the hungry ghosts were meant as moral lessons, but the original intent has been lost and converted into an irrational fear of the dead.
Ghosts are actually quite dependent on the living. They are described as returning from the dead because they miss us, as when a Lolo or Lola comes looking for a favorite grandchild, manifested by a mild illness in the child.
Others are said to return because they have been wronged in life, the worst being murder. Some seek vengeance; others just want the living to know they will remain restless, lingering, lurking to remind the living to pursue their cases.
There is a new book just out: “Bloodlust,” an anthology of Philippine protest poetry compiled by Gemino Abad and Alfred Yuson and including Angelo A. Lacuesta’s “Letter to be read by the dead” that could well be an interpretation of the ghosts’ pathetic haunting of the living: “I would be happy to discuss/ would it be possible/ in the near future/ next week/ at your convenience…”
Poor ghosts, depending on the living, who might even be more helpless. I thought of the three chicks placed on the glass covering Carl’s coffin, pecking away at food, with people hoping this would lead to pangs of guilt in the killers. By the time I left the wake, two of the chicks had gone to sleep—no more effective, I thought, than ghosts calling out in the night.
So, are we safe yet?
I wouldn’t worry about the ghosts, in this seventh lunar month or any other month. I’d be more anxious about the insatiable greed of the living ghosts, the corrupt and the power-hungry who spur the killings.
I’m not just talking about the government, which is often beholden to private interests with their own greed. If we had a Corporate Manslaughter Law like Britain does, one that holds companies accountable for deaths they cause from neglect and irresponsible practices, our courts would be clogged with such criminal cases.
The killings are not just about trigger-happy or sadistic police and vigilantes. Look up Bernard Testa’s story about Reynaldo de Guzman on Interaksyon to understand the depths of despair in the Cainta community that was home to Reynaldo and Carl. Life is cheap, and children are easy targets.
I fear for the murdered youth and their families. I fear for the taxi driver who claimed (or is being made to claim) that Carl had tried to rob him. I fear even for the police involved. They know what the truth is, and that puts their lives in danger. Those in power are haunted, too, and will spare no efforts to silence the ghosts, and the living.
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